Contemporary Chinese Architectural and Planning Practice

The following paper was prepared for the International Research Workshop: A Cross-Cultural Transfer of Building Environmental Information, March 14-16, 2002, at the Liu Center for the Study of Global Issues, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. The conference paper was published, July 2003, as a chapter in Buildings, Culture and Environment: Informing Local & Global Practices, edited by Raymond J Cole and Richard Lorch.

Contemporary Chinese Architectural and Planning Practice

Aspirations and Challenges

"China has no precedents in its past for buildings or spaces in higher density urban areas; courtyard cities are one-story high. The farmer and the Emperor both lived in the same house-type; only the size and decoration were different. Marco Polo said Beijing was the largest village he ever saw. The urban planning may be brilliant, but there is an absence of urban design." [i]
Qi Xin

"[I]f we want to preserve our national characteristics, we must first make sure they can preserve us. Distinctive things are not necessarily good, so why must they be preserved? Why keep a carbuncle just because it's Chinese? [ii]
Lu Xun (1881-1936), Chinese author and social critic.


By embarking on a rapid path of modernization of its built environment, China is encountering problems at architectural, technical, environmental, and social levels. These challenges are particularly poignant for Chinese architects and planners, who are attempting to reconcile and apply ideas imported from the West along with China's vast heritage. As a Canadian architect resident for 17 years in Beijing and Tianjin, it has been a privilege and a challenge to learn from traditional and current Chinese practice, and to participate in China's search.

The pace of development in China is so intense it presents both enormous potential and threat. Most of urban China has been built in the past 25 years, at a rate of over 150M m2 per year, often in huge single projects. This rate of urban expansion is unprecedented and is contributing to serious physical and cultural environmental degradation. Along with increased water and air pollution, diminishing water resources, and desertification, the physical remnants of China's urban cultural wealth are collapsing from neglect or being brushed aside. A World Bank (2001) report praised China for handling severe environmental problems over the past 10 years but warned that spending on conservation was being outstripped by economic growth, and urged a more pro-active approach.

Although China's urban population is still relatively poor, a rising standard of living and the accompanying rising expectations of material prosperity are challenging the sustainability of development. Will increasing prosperity lead China to embrace the same consumer-driven and unsustainable growth patterns of wealthier countries or to benefit from their mistakes? An even more disturbing threat to sustainability is the emergence of corruption, economic crime, opportunism and a renewed disparity between rich and poor.

Chinese children now are eagerly learning English, science, math, and engineering to enter a global society. About half of China's urban adults own mobile phones and the information highway has been adopted whole-heartedly. Ten percent of urban families now own a private car and Chinese cities are beginning to choke on this new traffic where once there were mainly bicycles. China is proving to be outward looking and eager to adopt Western science and technologies. These are often regarded as panaceas for all social and economic development ills and are not necessarily subjected to critical examination for their appropriateness or economic, social or environmental implications. The nature and still relatively low level of education and management experience inhibit the proper application of western ideas and methods. While many are aware of the opportunities to leap over the older technologies or planning errors and paradigms of “developed” countries; this happens by legal necessity or economic opportunity more than it does by considered choice.

Currently, the opportunity exists to build in order to improve living standards, accommodate large migrations into the cities, and allow for further industrialization. As the cities absorb tremendous population pressure and demand for shelter, existing urban fabric and traditional ways of life are under threat. Thus the questions arise: Which solutions to apply? What should be retained? What should be discarded?

With the rapid supply of high volumes of the built environment, little time exists to learn from the lessons of the past, or from other countries, and weave them into present practice. Moving a culture forward, when the shadow of the past on the present is so large, can make it more a burden than a rich source from which to borrow. In 1949, in his book “Towns and Buildings of the World”, Rasmussen rates Beijing as pre-eminent. Of "Peking, the capital of old China", he asks, "Has there ever been a more majestic and illuminative example of sustained town-planning?" The past can be a hard act to follow.

In terms of a contemporary national architectural style, China is still struggling to progress beyond the ten monumental structures built to celebrate its 10th anniversary in 1959, including the Great Hall of the People, the History Museum, the Beijing Railway Station, and the National Art Gallery. These structures are dignified and have some Chinese motifs, but they are still just preliminary steps toward reinterpreting China’s architectural and urban design heritage in modern terms. The new Beijing West Railway Station, designed in the early 1990s, tries harder than its 1950s predecessor to be a modern prototype, but lacks the dignity of the original station.

Liang Si Cheng, the founder of China's premier school of architecture at Qinghua University said, more than 50 years ago:

"Now, with the coming of reinforced concrete and steel framing, Chinese architecture faces a grave situation. Indeed there is a basic similarity between the ancient Chinese and the ultramodern. But can they be combined? Can the traditional Chinese structural system find a new expression in these materials? Possibly, but it must not be the blind imitation of 'periods'. Something new must come out of it, or Chinese architecture will become extinct." [iii]

The real estate boom that began in the early 1990s saw the construction of many office and apartment towers that either had foreign designers, some of whom have never been to China, or local designers experimenting with and emulating western design. For foreign-invested, high-standard office and residential buildings, the design is usually a wholesale import from the West. Local architects also made attempts to make some new buildings "Chinese". The references to historical styles, often quite literal, look uncomfortable on modern building types. Just as uncomfortable is the awkward imitation of western detail. The resulting built environment at best lacks an architectural and urban design language and at worse is deemed chaotic and even "barbaric"[iv]. This gives renewed urgency to answer the question, "What is modern and Chinese?" Every developer's design brief still asks for "modern with Chinese characteristics", but its realization is elusive. The result is fragmentation, a clash of old-new, east-west, and thoughtful-immature design.

When the construction boom started, the mayor of Beijing attempted to protect the city from over-Westernization. To counter the concerns that too many new tall structures with flat roofs were being built in Beijing, he insisted that all new towers wear a Chinese pavilion roof "hat" and parapets with glazed Chinese tiles to create a more Chinese-looking skyline. Although this aspiration was admirable, the result was unsatisfactory. Locals recognize the artificiality of such roofs and refer to the strip of tiles applied to the parapet as the "watermelon rind".

These issues have been the focus of soul-searching by all of China's leading planners and architects. Their aspirations are entwined with China's desire to modernize and become a contributor to the modern world after so many centuries of isolation. However, challenges exist at many levels:

  1. Reconciliation of economic development with social well-being and cultural continuity
  2. Differentiation between technological and cultural needs
  3. A clash between former revolutionary values of self-sacrifice and austerity and new policies promoting individual acquisition of wealth
  4. Architectural and planning heritage embodied in the old building fabric that is dilapidated
  5. China's urban development model now has much higher densities than before and consequently the old fabric and buildings are threatened with replacement.
  6. New construction lacks craft; old construction was rich in symbol-carrying craft and detail
  7. Current patterns of development are large-scale, centrally designed and organized in contrast to the traditional city composed of single (extended) family houses built using traditional patterns
  8. Old cities cannot sustain the onslaught of the private car

The Transition to Higher Density Cities

In the West, there is debate about whether sustainable city form is compact high-density, decentralized low-density, or decentralized concentration. While "it is not possible to state categorically that one particular theoretical urban structure is more sustainable than another", [v] the model for urban China today is based upon compact and high-density cities. The average gross plot ratio [vi] in new residential areas of Chinese cities is a minimum of 1.0 and often higher. The traditional old city in residential areas had a plot ratio closer to 0.3. The gross average population density of the built-up part of a Chinese city, including near suburbs, is about 10,000 people / km2 (100 people / hectare).

The argument for the compact high-density city is that density of buildings and people will optimize exchange, access to services, and opportunities for mutual support. Higher density should enable a more equitable and accessible distribution of community resources with walking access to shopping, schools, services, and more efficient public transportation. The density should not be so high, however, that the system becomes paralyzed and suffocating, nor so low that it needs unsustainable infrastructure to support it. No definitive numbers exist for "optimum" sustainable urban densities, so further research is needed to inform policy and practical levels. Indeed, the recent and emerging experiences of urban density in China would also inform such research. If the compact high-density city is a valid sustainable urban form, then, in this aspect at least, Chinese cities have the potential to be more sustainable than most North American cities.

However, the reason for creating compact high-density cities has been limited means rather than a conscious policy of sustainability. Chinese pragmatism, moderation, a frugality learned from poverty, and limited land resources result in new construction with a relatively high urban building density and a Spartan lifestyle. Most urban Chinese people cycle or take a bus to work, wear long underwear in winter, turn off lights when they leave a room, live in small spaces, and are sparing in their use of water and cooking gas. With rising wealth, the advantages of optimum-density city construction and energy-saving lifestyles can erode unless there is increased environmental awareness and education. Gains in building envelope performance, for example, may be outpaced by rising standards of comfort. If the socially acceptable and affordable limits of comfort increase, then the gains in building performance will be countered by expectations of higher indoor temperatures in the winter, etc. China cannot afford the West's sprawling very low-density suburbs resulting in expensive infrastructure. While sustainability was not a conscious goal, the results nonetheless achieve some sustainable characteristics.

While favorable arguments can be made for the new higher density Chinese city, from the point of view of architects and planners, some major problems exist.

  • First, there is a lack of a satisfactory urban design language for this new level of density. New densities far exceed former densities and therefore threaten the existing traditional city.
  • Second, the urban development process is "top-down", and delivered at mega-scale, leaving little room for diversity and participation.
  • Third, the transportation infrastructure has not kept pace with building construction. The private car is still favored and an era of traffic jams has begun. Shanghai plans to ban the bicycle on its main roads to clear the way for cars.
  • Fourth, globalization, initially at least, seems to be a vehicle for the transmission of a consumer-driven development paradigm that not only threatens sustainability but obscures the possibility that China's vast philosophical and cultural reservoir might provide clues to valuable alternatives.
  • Finally, the ability of the high-density city to sustain social and cultural needs over time needs to be validated.

While it can be argued that the densities of Chinese cities may be at a sustainable optimum, a fortuitous conformance with some aspects of sustainability will not be enough. A more conscious policy of sustainability, affecting more levels of urban life, will become an increasingly critical need. Chinese architects and planners can play a decisive role to help retain the current unconscious eco-habits and sustainable development patterns by making them conscious. One available instrument is China's Agenda 21 Program. Its "constitution" is The White Paper on China's Population, Environment and Development in the 21st Century. This clear and informative 1994 document is a blueprint for coordinated action on many fronts. Among other things, the Agenda, especially Chapter 10, The Development of Sustainable Human Settlements, could become part of the curriculum for architectural and planning education, and a guide for foreigners interested in any aspect of sustainable urban development in China [vii]

Urban Design for High Density

The bulk of the compact Chinese city is composed of housing and its form is defined by a number of factors:

  1. Limited budget (about US$120/sq.m. for construction)
  2. Scarce land
  3. High dependency on apartments to meet density demands; the house typology is almost non-existent in modern urban China
  4. A modest apartment unit size
  5. An ancient tradition of southern exposure for all building
  6. A willingness to climb six floors without a lift (elevator)
  7. Reliance on natural cross ventilation for summer comfort. There are no double-loaded corridor apartment layouts in China. Normally there are two or three units per floor at each stair landing.
  8. Structural requirements for earthquake-prone areas
  9. A work force using simple tools and methods

Within the above criteria and constraints, until recently, most housing in China was six-story walk-up apartments with plot ratios in residential districts between 1.0 and 2.0. Even at the edge of many cities, six story residential buildings are typically built across the road from farmer's fields. More recently the plot ratios, within the property lines of a 10 to 30 hectare housing estate, have risen to 2.5 - 3.0. The population density on these sites can exceed 1000 people/hectare [viii]. When the plot ratio in a residential area goes over 1.0, the house-type disappears and the apartment-type predominates.

Most mid- and high-rise housing in China is now free-market housing, not social housing. People are willing to buy high-rise housing because it is more affordable (2003) and provides more interior living area and more outdoor (communal) space. These building densities are not perceived as over-crowded, because people have usually moved out of very crowded living conditions (as low as 4 m2/person) in older parts of the city to a new apartment with 15 - 20 m2/person.

If the current densities for the new Chinese compact high-density city are sustainable, then the village-like one story, old courtyard city with its plot ratio of around 0.3 will not be preserved unless it is recognized for its high cultural value. An alternative urban multi-family dwelling type, with three story apartment blocks forming small courtyards and a plot ratio of approximately 1.0, was created by Professor Wu Liang Yong at Qinghua University, Beijing in the late 1980s. Despite being awarded a UNESCO Habitat prize, much publicity, and thousands of visitors, the model has not been replicated. This is mainly because land values have risen and the project's density is now too low to be financially feasible. It also appears to matter less to the average family to live in a quintessential Chinese courtyard environment. The six-story, higher density slabs are perceived by Chinese consumers to be better because they provide more light and air to all the units, and perhaps, more importantly, enough distance between buildings to provide some privacy.

There is also a lack of vocabulary for public space, as its use was not encouraged in China's old cities. Old cities were mostly administrative centers, not centers of trade. Consequently, there is a lack of a semi-private, and semi-public space in the spatial hierarchy. In addition, there are no precedents for modern building types such as office towers, airports and railway stations.

Only when other values are strong enough to intervene at policy and implementation levels, such as the value of heritage preservation, will such districts be preserved. If the policy of higher density is viable, then lower density areas have to be preserved and sustained by internal cross-subsidy from areas of higher density. However, this often comes at the cost of gentrification.

Another design challenge is China's current scale and pace of development. A ten-hectare site, in urban China, with a Plot Ratio of 2.0 has 200,000 m2 of buildings and is not considered a large-scale development. Christopher Alexander's idea of healthy, piecemeal, organic growth is in development sizes with an upper limit of about 10,000 m2 [ix]; only a twentieth of China's smaller scale developments. A typical New York city-block for example is about 80 x 270 m, just over two hectares, one-fifth the size of China's smallest.

For security reasons and to obtain more protected green space for residents, these ten-hectare and up housing projects tend to be "gated communities" with no through streets. This tends to contradict the rationale for higher density, namely, to improve accessibility. The rich grain of small-scale urban street blocks advocated by Jacobs and Alexander are not found in New China. Chinese planners would be challenged by Cliff Moughtin, Emeritus Professor of Planning at the University of Nottingham, who says:

"The larger and more homogenous the street block the greater will be its power to destroy the social, economic, and physical networks of the city. The large-scale single-use, single-ownership street block is the instrument most influential in the decline of the city: its effect together with that of its partner the motorcar are among the real causes of the death of the great city." [x]

Along with city size, and population and building densities, street block size is another area of useful international comparative research.

If the higher density compact city is an aspect of sustainable urban development for China, then the recent appearance of single-family home, suburban developments, in larger Chinese cities is a threat to sustainability. This niche market has attracted foreign developers some promoting the use of wood frame structures for this housing. Flammable wood construction cannot be used in China's higher density cities; its use must be confined to the "unsustainable" suburbs. Although traditional Chinese structures were all timber-frame, this was only possible in a lower-density one-story traditional city. Timber has also become a scarce resource in China. Its harvesting is a major contributor to flooding and soil erosion. Importing timber violates the sustainability principle of using local materials. Fortunately, a perception that repairs and alterations would be too expensive inhibits Chinese developers from pursuing the use of timber.

The Urban Development Process

The current urban Chinese development model allocates large tracts of land to large development companies, with centralized organization, using one design company to provide a few identical unit plans using national standardized construction details. The tremendous volume and speed of urban construction in China, achieved in such a short time, has been accomplished through a military approach with armies of workers (mostly farmers) organized like soldiers, living in barracks on the site.

While this method achieves the desired speed and volume of building construction, its centralization discourages diversity. Top-down organized "mass housing", built according to national standards works against the use of regional pattern languages. There is also a tendency toward the "majesty" of monumental symmetrical facades, and impressive wide streets cleared of outdoor markets, sidewalk peddlers, and small private shops. This hurts street life and reduces the stock of valuable, older, low-rent, "incubator" buildings [xi] so useful to China's budding entrepreneurs. The overall result can be a numbing homogeneity, and a rough coarsening of the urban grain. The process is understandably simple given limited management resources, a shortage of design professionals and an authoritarian social condition.

Property management, no longer the responsibility of the government, is undertaken by private companies. Early attempts are being made to organize residents' management committees but difficulties are encountered: the vast size of housing developments contain 2-3,000 families, passive habits acquired during five decades of state care inhibit the realization of self-management, and a fear of engaging in social relations with strangers.

Implementing a more decentralized process will take time. Although China has gained valuable experience implementing national policies, such as the Housing Reform Policy, where local government interpret guidelines according to local conditions, the size of the cities is still so large and the authoritarian mode so prevalent that urban development is still controlled from toward the center.

Valuable international precedents for alternate urban development models exist for China to look at. The St. Lawrence Market Neighborhood in Toronto, for example, is a multi-tenure, multi-developer, multi-architect housing estate (with some other uses mixed in) built around a common municipal plan. Only the overall development guidelines were centralized. This project has a scale and density consonant with China's needs, but with greater complexity and diversity of organization and building design. Another is the Berlin IBA (Internationale Bauaustellung). It involves public funds, public interest, private development, and some of the most prominent architects in the world, all used for urban renewal and rehabilitation in an open process.


The end of China's long, dynastic cycle of civilization and its search for modern identity both coincide with accelerating globalization. The Chinese dynastic cycle of civilization, from its great Tang, Song heights, has just finished its decline; a decline that concluded with 100 years of colonization and civil war. New China is barely 50 years old. The memory, even the shame, of the decline, and the glamour of new “Western” wealth, obscure and inhibit recognition of China's potential contribution to the philosophical underpinnings of our collective development. As long as the current Western, consumer-driven development paradigm model stands and China "buys" into it, in the near future, at least, the possibility that China could contribute to alternate scenarios will not be recognized by others, or even by itself.

The Harvard University sinologist, John Fairbank, calls China a latecomer to modernity, especially since the Open Door Policy of 1978, and asks whether it has emerged from isolation just in time to participate in the demise of the world or, with millennia of survival experience, to help rescue it? [xii] James Yen, a Chinese pioneer in rural development in the 1930s, suggests the latter possibility:

[T]hrough the last forty centuries China must have matured her thought and learned many lessons in the art of living. Surely, with China's four hundred million people [in 1930], four thousand years of culture and vast resources, she must have something to contribute to the peace and progress of mankind. [xiii]

One of the main reasons the Chinese have a nagging sense of being "behind" is because the "modern" is so often defined in narrow terms of technical and scientific progress, comfort and wealth, and the predominant but non-sustainable Western consumer society. If "modern" were defined as achieving the next stage in an evolving society, the family of man in a functional "neighborhood of nations", [xiv] then China would sooner find its voice. Distracted by the Western material development paradigm, China's spiritual, philosophical and artistic potential and resources are underestimated. China's appreciation of transcendent understandings is inhibited by an over-emphasis on material development and further slowed by a cultural self-deprecating nature. If the next stage in cultural evolution is the establishment of a transnational community, and if that is the purpose of globalization, then Chinese concept of "Tian Xia Yi Jia" (All under heaven is one family), for example, is an obvious congruence of thought. The essence of Chinese thought is harmony, unity of opposites, reciprocity; its heroes and champions of justice are poets and philosophers. The spirit of China's art, much of its poetry, and especially its garden design prefigure one of the essential concerns of sustainability, harmony between man and nature.

The more China locks itself into a material definition of modernization, the less it will see its own potential value and the harder it will be for it to find its heritage of any relevance to modern life. The current architectural "barbarism", including superficial borrowings from the West, is more the result of a lack of China's own development than emulation of the West; more a bowing to a mechanistic, technical view of development than a consequence of foreign stylistic domination.

As Dr. Farzam Arbab says:

"However thrilling the prospects may be, present patterns of behaviour do not inspire confidence in the process. It is only natural to wonder whether globalization will, in fact, unify the human race without imposing uniformity or simply propel the universalization of the culture of consumerism. Is it the bearer of prosperity for the masses or the mere expression of the economic interests of a privileged few? Will it lead to the establishment of a just order or to the consolidation of existing structures of power?

"..[T]he pattern of economic growth being replicated has proven so detrimental to the environment as to call its viability into question. The challenge of bringing prosperity to all the peoples of the world through a process of sustainable development will not be met solely by the application of technology and the expansion of current schemes of organization. It demands a radical departure f rom the materialistic philosophies that have created today’s concurrence of abject poverty and irresponsible wealth. [xv]


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[i] Qi Xin, conversation, March 21, 2002.

[ii] Lu Xun, quoted by Ruth Weiss, Lu Xun, A Chinese Writer for All Times, New World Press, China, 1985, pp.85.

[iii] Liang Si Cheng, A Pictorial History of Chinese Architecture, MIT Press, 1984, p.3. Chinese classical architecture has a post-and-beam wood frame structure connected with complex nail-less joinery. This frame structure, while almost obscured by walls of brick and roofs of clay tile, is independent of them, and, in this sense, contains a basic similarity to frame structures with curtain wall.

[iv] Phyllis Lambert, head of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, used the term 'barbaric' to describe China's modern urban landscape in a lecture at Beijing University, 12 November 2001. Qi Xin, a 42 year old Chinese architect, educated in Beijing and France has described the character of China's modern architecture as 'chaotic'.

[v] Cliff Moughtin, Urban Design: Green Dimensions, Architectural Press Oxford, p. 53.

[vi] Plot Ratio or Floor Area Ratio (FAR) is the number of square meters of building on a given site compared to the size of the site. For example, a ten-story building with 1000 m2/floor has a building area of 10,000 m2. If this building were placed on a 1 hectare site (10,000 m2), the Plot Ratio would be 10,000 m2 of building /10,000 m2 of land, or 1.0.

[vii] See

[viii] We can compare these two ratios to determine a third ratio, building space per person. In the above example, typical of new urban China, the ratio is an average of 20 m2 of building per person.

[ix] Christopher Alexander, A New Theory of Urban Design, Oxford University Press, 1987, p.32

[x] Cliff Moughtin, Urban Design: Green Dimensions, Architectural Press Oxford, p.138.

[xi] Jane Jacobs, the author of Death and Life of Great American Cities, refers to a city's stock of older, low-rent buildings as essential for economic development, as places where buliing entrepreneurs can experiment, with lower financial risk, to establish new businesses.

[xii] John K. Fairbank, China: A New History, Harvard University Press, 1992, Preface ppxv11.

[xiii] James Yen (Yan Yang Chu), Mass Education Movement, Ding County, Hebei Province, 1930s.

[xiv] Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, abridged one-volume edition, p.44.

[xv] Dr. Farzam Arbab, The Lab, the Temple, and the Market, Edited by Sharon Harper, IDRC, Canada, 2000, pp.1-2.

name="LinkTarget_14">[xiv] Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, abridged one-volume edition, p.44.

[xv] Dr. Farzam Arbab, The Lab, the Temple, and the Market, Edited by Sharon Harper, IDRC, Canada, 2000, pp.1-2.